On Sunday, Katie Engelhart (the London correspondent from Maclean's, I believe), penned an article for Salon "From Hitchens to Dawkins: Where are the women of New Atheism?," in which she looked at how the world of organized humanism/secularism/atheism has tended to be dominated by men--just like the world of organization religion. Humanism, secularism, and atheism are all completely different terms and are often used, unfortunately, as though they were the same. That's an issue for another day. What I do want to address, though, is the stunning lack of historical and present-day context in the media reporting on the rise of non-religious individuals interested in the communitarian and contemplative aspects of religion, but without the theology.
In her article, Engelhart writes, "Will things be different in a church of “New, New Atheism”? Over the
last few months, several secular churches have broken ground in Britain,
North America and elsewhere. The Sunday Assembly (which I profiled for Salon in April)
was launched in London by two comedians—to much fanfare. With new
branches in Melbourne and New York, the Assembly has plans to open 40
American outposts this autumn. The guiding tenet of the Assembly is that
Atheists have something to gain from the structures of a traditional
church (or mosque, or synagogue): a sense of community, thoughtful
lectures, periods of respite and occasions for moral contemplation.
Other secular churches have been opened by philosophers, former Pentecostal preachers, and reformed Christians. Centers like Harvard University’s Humanist Community have also garnered international attention."
First, I am always peeved when such organizations are referred to as "secular churches." It stems from a Christian-centric worldview in which the beliefs (or non-belief) of others must be explained through the lens of Christianity. Just as a synagogue is not a "Jewish church," these are not "secular churches," per se. If they identify with the word "church," that is their choice. It should not be a given.
However, my main gripe is the stunning omission of Ethical Culture in this discussion. The Ethical (Culture) Movement was started in New York City in 1876 by Felix Adler, the son of the head rabbi at Temple Emanu-El. Adler created the ethical movement--and corresponding ethical societies--as a spiritual home for those who could not intellectually believe in the theism of traditional religion and wanted a new form of fellowship rooted in social justice and critical, independent thought about the ethical questions of the day. The movement spread from New York to other cities over the ensuing decades and then spread abroad by the turn of the century. Ethical societies existed across Great Britain, Germany, France, Austria, Italy, and Japan at various points before World War II. The German and British societies were perhaps the most successful of those abroad although both faced trouble negotiating a role between religion and the emergent socialist movement. Although ethical culture, as a movement, peaked long ago, ethical societies still exist in cities like New York (Manhattan and Brooklyn), Philadelphia, Boston, DC, Baltimore, St. Louis, Chicago, and others. The remnant of the international presence of the movement lies in South Place Ethical Society, at Conway Hall in London. South Place has a much different feel than its American counterparts, less "social justice" and more "lecture society." Throughout its history, Ethical culturalists (or Ethicists, as they were more commonly called in Britain) were active in progressive advocacy on issues including civil rights, economic justice, and peace.
I've never understood why the "New Humanists" like the ones at Harvard haven't embraced ethical culture. Starting a "New Humanism" or a "New, New Atheism" feels like reinventing the wheel--something that we on the left side of the spectrum always seem to do.